The Obama administration’s recently exposed program to provide a text-messaging service for ordinary citizens in Cuba is a commendable effort to break the Castro government’s information monopoly. We hope they don’t quit trying.
Critics of the program like Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., called it “dumb, dumb, dumb” as soon as the Associated Press published a report last week on the short-lived Twitter-like program that ran out of funding in 2012. What would be really dumb, though, is to sit back silently and do nothing while Cuba’s 11 million people are kept from hearing or reading any information except what bears the government’s stamp of approval.
Keep in mind that among the most successful programs of the Cold War were those like Radio Free Europe and communications support for groups like Solidarity in Poland that gave citizens of Soviet bloc countries vital information they could not get elsewhere.
These programs managed to foil the embargo on truth maintained by the communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and weakened the authoritarian governments propped up by the Red Army. They paved the way for the dissolution of the Iron Curtain and the rise of civil societies capable of nurturing democracy.
The Cold War may be over, but in Cuba an aging dictatorship spawned at the height of East/West tensions still employs the same tactics of that era to keep its people in the dark and under control. If it was unacceptable in Eastern Europe, it’s unacceptable in Cuba, as well.
And if this country took the lead in overcoming the information barriers created by the communist dictatorships of that era, why should it refrain from devising effective programs to do the same against the Castro regime?
Created in 2009, the program called ZunZuneo, a Cuban word mimicking the buzz of a hummingbird, allowed some 40,000 Cubans, mostly young and tech-savvy, to communicate with each other using the government’s own cellphone network.
U.S. sponsorship of the program was kept secret for obvious reasons, but that does not discredit the program itself or its goals — to allow the Cuban people to communicate with each other without government interference.
Sen. Leahy may be right in saying that placing the program under the auspices of the Agency for International Development (USAID) was wrong. That compromises USAID’s mission and supplies ammunition for critics of the agency’s many other admirable efforts to promote democracy and human rights around the globe, including in Cuba.
It also allows the Cuban government to draw inaccurate connections between this “clandestine” effort and the plight of USAID contractor Alan Gross, who remains in jail for delivering banned communications equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community.
A Senate panel is slated to examine the propriety of USAID’s role in this case on Tuesday. Members of the panel should not lose sight of who bears responsibility for restricting the free flow of information in Cuba. The villain in this scenario is an authoritarian and paranoid gerontocracy afraid of its own people and unwilling to let them communicate with each other — in print, by electronic media, or in cyberspace.
The government fears the means of communication used by young people the world over. They will continue to close the doors of information, but they are unlikely to stop new forms of communication trying to fill the vacancy left by ZunZuneo.